Michael and I got into a pretty spirited debate last night about Happiness. [I capitalized that word because it seems to need it.] We all want Happiness. We all ache to find it, and then hold on to it.
Few of us are willing to really discuss it. When I was 19 I would have never discussed Happiness with my mother; it would have been too painful.
Michael told me he wanted to buy something "to make me happy." This is something I have observed a lot during the nearly 9 years he has been my son. He desires something terribly [a toy or game or item of clothing]. He gets it. It intrigues him for a few minutes or a few hours, possibly a day or two. Then he's unhappy again, looking for something else.
"Happiness can only be found in OTHER PEOPLE," I told him. Even as the words came out of my mouth, I realized that they were inadequate.
As a Christian, I immediately rebuked myself, thinking happiness must be sought in God. After all, that is what we are taught, right? God's will for our lives is what we must strive for, because only then will be we happy. (This, of course, is not the time to mention Christian martyrs..)
I also rebuked myself, silently pondering the difficulties Michael has had in really forming close bonds with friends. Everyone who knows him likes him, because he has such a sweet soul. He rarely lets anyone see the early pain he endured. That self, he protects.
For a child who has been in an orphanage, who has experienced significant trauma and loss, it's difficult to forge close friendships and romantic relationships. Michael's two closest friends are boys who have lost their birthmoms to drugs or alcohol. His friends who have not experienced that cannot really imagine the depth of that pain, and therefore Michael feels separate from them, however much he likes them otherwise.
It's easy for me to lament this fact, because I never experienced anything like it. I do not know what it's like to be a small child who is given vodka to sleep so my parent can stay out all night partying, leaving me passed out somewhere on a cold floor. I don't know what it's like to have no home, and nothing of my own, not a single toy or photo of someone I love, not even my own toothbrush.
Comfort is a tough thing to find when your world is always in chaos. Maybe that's why he feels only someone who has known similar chaos is remotely capable of comforting him.
My early childhood was idyllic in comparison.
No, what I wished I could tell Michael -- and magically help him to truly believe in -- is that books have the power to heal us. Stories can inspire us, and comfort us, or if nothing else at least distract us.
We need stories and their healing power as much as we need oxygen.
As writer Nicholson explains:
"Why not take the medicine neat? Why not read the great religious texts? The great philosophers? Why not write my new book as amateur philosophy? The answer is that we life-journey addicts don’t want to be dumped so unceremoniously at our destination. We want to follow a twisting road. We want to know not just where our guide has got to, but how, and with what difficulties along the way. We want to take that journey step by step, comparing our own fears and longings with our guide’s as we go. We don’t want a sermon. We want a story."
"If you want to know about the journey, ask someone who has just returned."
When I was a junior in college I spent a semester up to my eyeballs with work -- a full class load, working in the costume shop, and in a play. Between work, study, class, and rehearsals, I had no time to myself. Most nights, 6 hours of sleep was all I could manage. I finished the semester with a 4.0.
The next semester, I continued the breakneck pace for a few weeks. Then I just couldn't, one day. I got up, didn't shower or put on clothes, didn't leave the apartment, didn't eat. I opened an old book that happened to be in the apartment, The Winds of War, and started reading. I read non-stop for several days. I read the sequel. I didn't go anywhere, see anyone, or talk to anyone.
A week later, I dropped out of school.
I was burned out. Mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted.
Books got me through the next months. I didn't seek therapy, or medication, or drugs or alcohol. I went home to Knoxville that spring, and read books and made some pottery, and recovered my equilibrium. It was not a happy time for me, but I came through it, and went back and finished school the next year.
I don't remember all the books I read that spring and summer, but I distinctly remember sitting in an easy chair in my brother's room, completely absorbed in a book, not really wanting to go anywhere or see anyone. I felt like I was inside the story, living it. I was not delusional, I just needed to escape my depressing reality.
When I returned to Athens for my senior year of college, it was my happiest year ever.
Do books magically solve problems? No, of course not. They shine a light, though, sometimes helping us to see our own way.
I've always loved biographies and historical novels because I like seeing how other people deal with issues in their lives. I am always drawn to books set during World War II because that was such a cataclysmic event in world history, and it affected so many people. Getting through that war, even for civilians, was a major achievement.
I recently finished a book called The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah, about women in France during the occupation. Terrific read. [Thanks for recommending it, Aunt Jane!] I am finishing up a series of books by Susan Elia MacNeal, all set in England in World War II, which start with Mr. Churchill's Secretary. Great little mysteries but thoroughly well-researched, with vivid characters. I highly recommend them.
I still believe that Happiness has to be found by reaching out to other people. You have to care for others, to love them, to interact with people, or you simply cannot be happy, in my opinion. Even nuns and monks live in communities with others.
Ministering to each other allows God to use us, in a wonderful way.
Books, however, are like occupying space in the writer's head, as they take you on a journey and show you new things, and provoke feelings in you. As much as I love movies, no movie has ever gotten me out of my own head the way a good book can.
I think mentally getting out of one's own way, resting one's brain, is one of the best ways to find healing. Turning over and over a conversation or painful encounter with someone, the words echoing in your head, is a form of self-torture. I've endured it countless times. It never accomplishes anything. Books are a great distraction.
Reaching out to others, though, works even better.
Not texting others. Not Facebooking others. Actually a face-to-face encounter -- something teens now too often shun -- that's what will help.
My advice to Michael last night was simple: go to work, or school, or church, and make friends. Just talk to people, lots of people, until you find a friend. Be friendly and approachable, and open. I quoted him what my mother told me years ago: You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince. Good metaphor. He needs to get out and mix and mingle.
Oh, and reading a good book is also good. Hopefully he will read and know he is not alone.